Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.
One of the most frequently-posed questions to the author of the 12RFL has been this: “Do you believe in God?” Mr. Peterson’s reply: “I act as though He exists” has satisfied some, confused others, and bothered not a few.
For those who might think the answer to be imprecise or that Mr. Peterson is dodging the question, consider the point that maybe Mr. Peterson’s reply matches exactly the imprecision of the question. What do I mean? First, the person posing the question rarely if ever defines what they mean by ‘believe’. And one might bet a dollar to a donut that every person asking that question probably thinks the word means giving intellectual assent to the fact that God exists. Second, the person rarely (if ever) qualifies what god exactly they are asking about. And so one might suspect that Mr. Peterson simply gives an answer that is intended to embrace the wildly broad, nebulous, and ill-defined question that it is without offending the one posing it.
But let us look more closely into this. Let’s pay a little closer attention to this question, because it is important … actually, it is the most important question anyone will ever ask, and ever answer.
Consider first the background Mr. Peterson himself discusses on page xi and xii in the Preface to his first work, Maps of Meaning.
“I was raised under the protective auspices, so to speak, of the Christian church. This does not mean that my family was explicitly religious. I attended conservative Protestant services during childhood with my mother, but she was not a dogmatic or authoritarian believer, and we never discussed religious issues at home. My father appeared essentially agnostic, at least in the traditional sense. He refused to even set foot in a church, except during weddings and funerals. Nonetheless, the historical remnants of Christian morality permeated our household, conditioning our expectations and interpersonal responses, in the most intimate of manners. When I grew up, after all, most people still attended church; furthermore, all the rules and expectations that made up middle-class society were Judeo-Christian in nature. Even the increasing number of those who could not tolerate formal ritual and belief still implicitly accepted—and still acted out—the rules that made up the Christian game. When I was twelve or so my mother enrolled me in confirmation classes, which served as introduction to adult membership in the church. I did not like attending. I did not like the attitude of my overtly religious classmates (who were few in number) and did not desire their lack of social standing. I did not like the school-like atmosphere of the confirmation classes. More importantly, however, I could not swallow what I was being taught. I asked the minister, at one point, how he reconciled the story of Genesis with the creation theories of modern science. He had not undertaken such a reconciliation; furthermore, he seemed more convinced, in his heart, of the evolutionary viewpoint. I was looking for an excuse to leave, anyway, and that was the last straw. Religion was for the ignorant, weak and superstitious. I stopped attending church and joined the modern world.”
Maps of Meaning, p. xi-xi
It is no wonder that when a child raised in this type of dead religiosity is presented with the question, “Do you believe in God,” if he has become a sincere and honest man and wishes to respond with sincerity and honesty to others, will remember from whence he came and what he saw. He will remember how people would live as though their belief system was simply a veneer to their lives, where their lives were in truth completely disconnected from that belief system and its constraints, requirements, and benefits, and he would say, “Well, I have decided to act as though He exists.” This is a natural answer from someone who throughout much of his life knew people who claimed to believe in God, yet acted as though He didn’t exist. It would be an answer from a man who wishes to be and do what he says he is—no more, no less.
But let’s press on with an examination of the other part of that question. When someone puts this question to Mr. Peterson, they never say, “Do you believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” or “Do you believe in the God of Islam,” or “Do you believe in Jesus.” They don’t specify what God they’re talking about, and so how can Mr. Peterson reply?
Someone, reading the paragraph above, might say “Well, after all, don’t all roads lead to the top of the mountain? Aren’t they all just different names for the same God?” Such a query would reveal that person to have absolutely no conception of the substance, the details, or the content associated with those different gods. The nature of the god worshipped by the Rabbis is different than the nature of the god worshipped by Muslims, which is different than the nature of the god worshipped by Catholics, which is different than nature of the god worshipped by Mormons, which is different than Buddha or Krishna or whatever other god you wish to name. To assert there are different roads leading to the top of the same mountain is tantamount to gross ignorance at best, and puerile, malicious deception at worst. Pay attention. Read what each belief system has to say about itself. Compare the gods—compare their natures, their likes, their hates, their ambitions and hopes for the human race, and what they require of man. You will see a vast difference, a difference any person with half a functioning brain will immediately see is an unbridgeable gulf.
Now, if the question is, “Do you believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Who, one must hasten to add, is not the god of Rabbinic Judaism) and His Son, Jesus”, this is a fair and specific enough question to pose. If the answer to such a question would be, “Well, I have decided to act as though He existed,” then in such action would come a requirement to actually confess a belief, verbally, in that God and in His Son, Jesus.
“But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.”Romans 10:8-10, emphasis added
Nothing ambiguous about that statement.
Is it a given that if someone decides to act as though the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob existed, they would obey Him? Not really, for two reasons.
First reason: consider Satan. Satan and the demons act as though God exists. Satan knows God exists, and therefore all his actions are in the context of that knowledge. Does this mean Satan obeys Him? Certainly not; to act as though God exists is not the same thing as saying that one will obey Him, which, if you recall the meaning of the word ‘believe’, is therefore not the same thing as saying that one believes in Him—remember, to ‘believe’ means to depend on, rely upon, trust in, and obey. This is where many people asking the question “Do you believe in God” go astray, for in their minds, the question really is, “Do you think there is a God, and if so, do you think we have to obey Him?” A person who says that they have decided to act as though God existed without a concomitant devotion to ensuring God is sovereign in their life can live their life doing what they wish, all the while carrying around in their head an intellectual assent to the fact that God exists.
Second reason: if we presume that in the answer, “I act as though God exists” is implied “I act as though God was sovereign in my life,”—that is, that my life will be conducted in accordance with, and in obedience to, God, then one is hard up against another difficult spiritual truth. No one can successfully order the conduct of their lives in a way such that their conduct will be acceptable to that actual, real, personal, living Higher Authority. One cannot decide for oneself what conduct is appropriate; one cannot decide for oneself what God will approve of. The Higher Authority Himself has already said what is and is not acceptable to Him, and no human being can meet that standard. Anything less than perfect righteousness is not acceptable to Him, and will land the less-than-perfect supplicant in hell (real hell). When the respondent stands before that Higher Authority to be judged, the mistakes the respondent has made throughout their lives (it will only take one) are called up and the respondent will be required to make an account of them. Without any way to atone for those mistakes (there’s that pesky concept of balance—or what some might call justice), all of the respondent’s honest, sincere efforts will be shown to have been for naught, for a perfect God cannot exist in the presence of imperfection.
But if one does actually mean, “I will act as though God is sovereign in my life,” then the next question comes: “Which God?” And if the answer is, ‘The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as revealed in the Bible (to include the Trinity),’ then one is faced with still another issue relative to obedience.
“Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.”Matthew 10:32-33
The context of Jesus’ statement quoted above: Jesus had gathered His disciples and was giving them instruction (and authority) in preparation for their first trip ‘out into the world’ to proclaim Him and to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven. They were warned where to go, and directed what to do and say, and what not to do. They were cautioned (“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.”). And then, finally, they were warned to beware most of all of men, who would betray them and persecute them—even family members. He tells them, however, not to fear these things, but rather to expect them, for as such will happen to Him, so too will His disciples also suffer. And it was in this context that Jesus called for His disciples to boldly profess, verbally, that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, to those they encountered. He called them to boldly speak what they believed about Who God is and what He requires of men, even in the face of potential persecution, disbelief, angry mobs, hatred from family members, or irate, politically-correct tenure committees.
To say that we live our lives as though God existed is not the same as saying that we will act as though God is sovereign in our life. It is like a man who, when asked if he believes that the rope bridge will hold him as he crosses the ravine, says, “I will act as though I believe it,” but then doesn’t actually cross the bridge.
Such an answer also conveys a sense that one can order one’s own life without any real conviction that there is in fact a living, personal, individual God. It is somewhat of a qualifying response, and (sadly) in the halls of His throne room, in His hall of judgment, having such a response replayed will not be salubrious or beneficial. Jesus, standing there, will not come to our defense, for we, in our life, failed to live by the terms and conditions of His offer—we did not confess Him before men; we did not avail ourselves of His perfect righteousness—and thus, our sin will remain. There are times in life when God does require of us words—not least because of the testimony it carries to the powers and principalities in the realm of the spirit—and we must speak the truth (or at least, not lie). If we will truly act as though God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob exists, then our voice must give spoken assent to the fact that He is, and that we believe in (that is, depend on, trust in, rely upon, and obey) Him.
In conclusion: if Mr. Peterson’s answer satisfies you, you haven’t thought about it well enough. If it confuses you, you haven’t paid sufficient attention in life. And if it bothers you, give the man a break, for answering such a broad question as “Do you believe in God” without any real definition of terms is like trying to hang clothes on a clothesline untied at one end during a windstorm.